America Desperately Needs Real Tolerance: A Lesson from Mike Pence

Our country is deeply divided. This, of course, is no secret. There are competing versions over how we need to proceed in terms of race, economics, moral issues and more.

Underlying many of these issues is a competing view of tolerance. As my father and I point out in our book The Beauty of Intolerance, tolerance no longer means what it used to mean. Classically, tolerance has meant recognizing and respecting others when you don’t share their beliefs, values, or practices. By this definition, tolerance assumes disagreement. Otherwise, what is there to tolerate? But according to a new view, tolerance means recognizing and respecting all views as being equal. And by this view, if you think your view is superior, then you’re a hateful, intolerant bigot.

tolerance mike pence

Two Competing Views of Tolerance

These two competing views of tolerance were on clear display this week. In response to the election of Donald Trump, designer Sophie Theallet called for the fashion industry to boycott Melania Trump. In defense of her views, Sophie posted a letter on Twitter that says her brand “stands against all discrimination and prejudice.” And then she says, “As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.” And she called on the fashion industry to follow her lead.

The irony and contradiction is evident. If she really stands against “discrimination and prejudice,” then why prejudge and discriminate against Melania? If she really values “respect for all lifestyles,” then why not respect the future First Lady, especially since her husband received support from roughly half the country? Do their values matter? In reality, Theallet embraces a pseudo view of tolerance that claims to accept all lifestyles, but in practice, only accepts those who agree with her.

She certainly has the right to hold, defend, and proclaim this view. Even though I think she’s wrong, I fully support her right to run her business this way and to make her views public. People should have the right to run their businesses based upon their deepest moral convictions. But I do think she should stop pretending to value “diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles.” Clearly she doesn’t.

How Mike Pence Stole the Show

If you want to see real value for diversity, and a genuine model of tolerance, you will have to look to another story that has been trending this week: the Hamilton/Pence controversy.

Vice-President Elect Mike Pence took his family to see the play Hamilton. When he arrived many people booed him. How did he respond? “I nudged my kids and reminded them, that’s what freedom sounds like…I wasn’t offended by what was said,” said Pence in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

In other words, rather than getting defensive, angry or resorting to name-calling, Pence chose to find the good in people booing him, and he took the opportunity to teach his kids a valuable lesson: America is a great nation that allows people to disagree fervently. In fact, the value of freedom is greater than our own discomfort. By defending the right of people to boo him, Pence showed that he values freedom more deeply than his own feelings.

Part of what has made America great is that we are a nation of people with diverse views on a plethora of issues. Even though we may think others are deeply mistaken, we value the freedom of disagreement.

After the show, members of the cast personally addressed Pence and offered a criticism of his administration. On stage with his fellow actors, Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement directed at Pence:

We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.”

Again, how did Pence respond? Although his security detail rushed him out, Pence made sure to stop and hear the full statement. He valued their opinion and their right to hold it. And he had no ill words the next day. In fact, Pence praised the actors and mentioned how much he enjoyed the show. And he reiterated his commitment to work for all Americans. As a result, Dixon called his response “encouraging.”

Our country will be deeply divided for some time. How do we move forward as a nation? Pence gave us many lessons, but one stands out as critical for our nation at this point: choose to be gracious and kind towards others and genuinely listen to their concerns. Pence could have been critical, harsh, or defensive. But he took the high road. He chose to be civil and kind towards those who see the world differently. And it was noticed. Although it was small, he advanced the ball on bringing back civil discourse. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come from people on all sides of the political spectrum.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:



Free Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
16 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “These two competing views of tolerance were on clear display this week”

    I find it odd that for the opposing view of tolerance to Mike Pence you choose reaction to Melania Trump and not simply stay with the Hamilton story. Mike Pence said he wasn’t bothered by the Hamilton actor’s speech. By contrast the President elect, Donald Trump reacted in fury, calling the cast ‘rude, demanding an apology, saying the theatre should be a ‘safe space’. Others on the right tried to start a campaign to boycott Hamilton. Funnily enough, Sean,

    Given this furious (intolerant?) reaction, the focus of their rage bears repeating. This is what the Hamilton actor actually said on stage:

    “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable right. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

    You say: “Pence could have been critical, harsh, or defensive”. I guess, but the actor’s speech could hardly have been more mild. It wasn’t an attack but a simple plea to Pence not to forget about them. You go on to say: “He chose to be civil and kind towards those who see the world differently. And it was noticed.” I noticed it, but I fear it was kind of drowned out by the aforementioned furious reaction from his colleagues. Again, his own boss – Trump – took exactly the road you congratulate Pence for spurning – he was critical, harsh and defensive. You ignore that completely in order to call out designer Sophie Theallet. I’m guessing this is because you wanted to paint this as a contrast between leftwing and rightwing attitudes.

  2. Andy Ryan says:

    On the subject of tolerance, I’ve seen quite a few people try to debunk the whole concept by saying “If you don’t tolerate intolerant people, does that mean YOU are intolerant?”. This is sophistry and playing with words. If a person wanted to be disingenuous they could play the same game with the idea of ‘kindness’. Imagine someone is going around beating up Korean Americans. You wouldn’t say “It’s unkind to stop him beating those people up, because that’s what he wants to do”. Yet people will offer the same argument about tolerance, saying “So you call yourself tolerant? That means you should ‘tolerate’ any behaviour and any attitude, include intolerant ones”. It’s a bad argument.

    At the root of this is anger from certain groups on the right that THEIR views on subjects such as gay issues are coming to be seen as intolerant. They fear it’s going the same way as view of race issues 50 years ago. No-one today makes allowances for the views of people who are against interracial marriage, and some people fear that their own views on gay marriage will be seen in the same way. So they accuse supporters of gay marriage – the people who are asking for ‘tolerance on gay marriage’ – to show some tolerance to the people who are against gay marriage. In fact, they go further than that and try to paint the SSM supporters as hypocrites, who are in reality INtolerant. But as I point out above, this is just sophistry and wordplay. No-one today would say we are intolerant if we don’t accept the views of people against interracial marriage. At least, we can accept that people have the right to hold those views, but that’s about it.

    • Kalmaro says:

      Please do not compare race, something you are born into, with someone’s decision on who they decide to marry. Race can’t be helped, your marriage partner and who you sleep with is completely under your control.

      • Andy Ryan says:

        I didn’t make that comparison. I compared someone’s choice of racial partner with their choice of gender partner. You are born into a race just like you are born into a gender, no?

        “Who you sleep with is completely under your control”
        That applies just as much to the race of your partner as to the gender. If you think that’s an argument against gay marriage then it’s just as much an argument against interracial marriage.

        In short, my point stands.

          • Kyle says:

            That’s merely your opinion. I’m of the opinion gender doesn’t matter at all from a legal standpoint.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Andy, race is irrelevant to marriage, gender is essential to it”

            Fifty years ago people argued that race WAS relevant, and they cited the Bible to justify that belief, just like some people still do to justify being against gay marriage – so the comparison is actually pretty pertinant. It took court cases to allow black and white people to marry. And now interracial marriage and gay marriage are both legal, rendering your own opinion on either irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

        • Aaron Brown says:

          Andy, from a scientific sense we know that race is not a key factor in marriage. There aren’t any biological differences between two people of different races.(besides the color of your skin which is irrelevant) There are obvious differences between the two sexes from a scientific sense.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Andy, from a scientific sense we know that race is not a key factor in marriage”

            How are you defining ‘key factor’? That’s pretty vague. You could say that if you’re married to someone much taller than you then ‘in a scientific sense’ there’s an obvious difference between you and your spouse, but so what? And what difference would it make if there WERE biological differences between two races? So what? If someone could show clear biological differences, would that justify anti-miscegenation laws? I’d say not, would you?

            None of this affects the points I made in my post of November 29, 2016 at 5:54 am, anyway.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “There aren’t any biological differences between two people of different races.”

            There are ‘biological differences’ between any two people (with the possible exception of identical twins) on this planet. What you’re offering is post hoc rationalisation.

  3. toby says:

    I cannot believe how insane Trump got about the Hamilton incident, and in turn riled up his sycophants. What was said in the theater was innocuous. And they defend Pence for being tolerant. To me it seems that the religious right has once again been pulled around by their religious collar for someone’s gain (Trump). In the end it may well show that they have voted against themselves economically, environmentally, and in terms of safety. All because he paid lipservice to religion and hired one of their choirboys to be VP,

    • Andy Ryan says:

      It’s hard to imagine how much more Trump could have shown up the religious right’s claim to the moral high ground. By which I mean how much more in contradiction to their claimed values would a candidate have had to have been before they disowned him?

      Trump is on his third wife, had boasted about trying to ‘sleep with’ a woman married to someone else, has paid out $25m to settle a fraud case, is bringing in a white supremacist as an adviser, boasts about not paying tax, is thin-skinned and childish, can’t let any grievance go without shouting about it on social media, is now using his president elect status to push his business interests in Argentina, India, and elsewhere, and after pillorying Hillary for being a security risk, Trump is considering giving a top job to General Petraeus, who got sacked for a major security scandal … I could go on. The most I can see that the religious right get out of it all is a half-hearted promise to restrict abortion rights. That aside, this has been the election with the religious right abandoned any pretence at representing the moral high ground.

      To take just one element of that long, shameful litany – can you imagine what they’d have said eight years ago if Obama had taken to the stage with five children from three different women? Liberals would never have heard the end of it!

    • Aaron Brown says:

      “In the end it may well show that they voted against themselves economically, environmentally and in terms of safety”
      How does voting for Trump hurt the religious right in terms of safety?

  4. toby says:

    The most I can see that the religious right get out of it all is a half-hearted promise to restrict abortion rights.
    They may get lower taxes. Which is what they love almost as much as (or more than) their religion—money. Getting it and keeping it. Because they labor under the delusion that paying it in taxes to make a social safety net isn’t as good as keeping it and then “freely” giving it as charity.

    • Andy Ryan says:

      The weird thing is that Sean in this article paints it as being about Mike Pence’s reasonable, tolerant, respectful response to the the actor. He could equally have said that it was the ACTOR giving a reasonable, tolerant response to Mike Pence. We’ve got Steve Bannon in the White House, who complained that his daughters had to go to the same school as ‘whiney Jews’. He’s also said that he’d prefer if only property owners could vote. Isn’t this the sort of intolerance that Sean McDowell might be better focussing on and writing about? In the face of someone with those views being granted the ear of the President, the concerns raised by the Hamilton actor seem pretty reasonable, and yet you’d have thought he’d physically attacked Pence for the condemnation showered on him.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *